Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wing, Wong, Uong, Meas, and You: A Panel in Andover

Last night at Phillips Academy in Andover, Jack You (PA '10) opened up with a PowerPoint presentation about political under-representation and participation of Asian Americans (they make up 4.4% of the U.S. population but hold only 1.5% of federal elected positions, and tend to vote in lower percentages than do other groups).

The reasons You cited for the lack of involvement and representation ran the gamut from a lack of exposure to politics, pre-acquired political values from countries of origin, difficulties with English, cultural passivity, and racism.

You was followed by a panel of speakers which included Rithy Uong, the first Cambodian-American to hold electoral office in the U.S. (Lowell City Council, elected in 1999, 2001, and 2003), Leverett Wing (many years of service in Mass. State Senate and a member of Deval Patrick's transition team), Lisa Wong (recently elected to her second term as mayor of Fitchburg), and Sam Meas (first Cambodian-American U.S. Congressional candidate).

Of the personal stories told by the panelists, I thought Lisa Wong's was the most interesting. She talked about how, as an undergraduate, she questioned a lot of the propaganda that came from activist groups that attempted to corral large numbers of protesters for events, but didn't necessarily attempt to inspire real debate. As a result, she held counter-protests and teach-ins with professors to try to appeal to people who sought critical discussion as opposed to just a bunch of chanting and yelling. After becoming involved in community development in Fitchburg, she looked around for forward-thinking local leadership, but didn't see it and then decided to run for mayor at age 28 (she was first elected in 2007).

I asked her afterwards about how the "triple identity" of being female, young, and a person of color affected her, and she was quick to put it in a positive light -- to many of her constituents, that makes her far more approachable than someone who came straight from Central Casting as Hizzoner, the Mayor.

Overall, the tone of the panel and the audience (mostly Phillips students) seemed very balanced and nonpartisan, which I definitely noted and appreciated -- personally, I find it offensive that as a straight white male, no one ever tells me how I *should* vote, but people who consider themselves enlightened and forward-thinking question why a woman or a person of a particular ethnicity would ever vote a certain way (in a way, that is, that runs counter to someone else's preconceived notion).

For the record, I think ANYONE of any race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or income level should be able to vote any way he or she sees fit. Any single voter's reasons for doing so are complex and individual, so far be it from me (or anyone else) to prescribe what someone *should* or *shouldn't* do based on the box into which someone else wants to put them.


C R Krieger said...

Showing that I am a retard, I will raise the question as to what are the limits that define "people of color."

Is this a fixed boundary or does it shift over time?

I assume we are using WASPs as the standard for being not a person of color.  I keep intending to read How the Irish Became White. French and Germans and Scandinavians are in, I assume, and, of course, folks from the BENELUX. Italians and Greeks? If yes, what about Armenians, Bulgarians and Turks?  Folks from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Israel?

I fully agree that we need to be reaching out to pockets of non-voters, but I worry that we not accentuate differences that otherwise might not exist.

This is a strategic view.  At the tactical level we still need to work the pockets of non-voters.

But, we need to be expanding that boundary as quickly as possible, so we become "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all."

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

Cliff, glad you brought that up. It's definitely a slippery's like, "persons of color" is supposed to refer to those with non-European ancestry, but what about someone of European descent who is from the Middle East?

Remember, I survived a year of Ed School, so I've seen how this stuff can quickly spiral out of control, and how people can start to create a "people of color are good, white people are bad" dichotomy.

That type of stuff is dangerous, and it serves no one.

However, as I like to say, the symbolic *firsts* matter because they take away from the importance of the *seconds.* Look at Massachusetts, for example. If we held a gubernatorial race 10 years from now, no one would have any credibility saying "we need to elect a person of color this time because we've never done it before." The point is, we have, so in the future that should be less of an issue..

C R Krieger said...

I agree on getting past the "firsts."  Then we can get down to doing business as just plain folks.  The first Roman Catholic Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court was over 100 years before our first Roman Catholic President.  But, not that long after the Commonwealth of Massachusetts finally gave Roman Catholics the right to vote.

Regards  —  Cliff